One Nation Under Stress

The trouble with stress as an idea

Lean in or Fall Over?

How to resolve the "work-life conflict" debate

In 2003 Lisa Belkin created quite a stir reporting in the New York Times on women in the upper reaches of corporate life who were leaving the workplace to stay home to take care of their families. Recently Judith Warner interviewed a number of women who had “opted out,” in order to see how things look to them now. In an August, 2013 cover story in the Times she reported that the only group of women who had fared really well were those who had the most money, the best educational credentials and terrific social networks. As their children had gotten older, they were able to find jobs or create jobs for themselves fairly easily after long absences from the workplace. But for those not in the “superelite,” the road has been substantially rockier.

One of the women Warner interviewed had been a poster child early on for the “opt-out revolution" and was interviewed for “60 Minutes.” At that time she said that she was “so stressed” trying to manage family life and a high-pressure job that she had needed to leave her paid job in order to save her marriage. After leaving the workplace she had a third child and settled into a life at home, but things haven’t worked out well for her in the long run. The marriage collapsed under the weight of her sagging self-confidence and increased dependency on her husband. She said she began to feel like a “loser.” She divorced, and although she was lucky enough to get a job, her present salary doesn’t approach her old one. Watching the video of that “60 Minutes” interview now, she says with regret, “It wasn’t the perfect fairy tale ending.” Another mother told Warner that after deciding to stay home she began to feel resentful because husband expected her to do all the housework:  “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage.” Although now that her children are older she’s built a company from the ground up and is proud of her success, she’s still doing all the family work, from picking up her daughters after to school to planning birthday parties, and says that “the pace at which I’m living now is unsustainable.” And these women are the lucky ones: they aren’t single mothers working low-wage jobs for whom opting out was never an option, and for whom taking time off to care for a sick child or manage a crisis could cost them their jobs.

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The recent upsurge in debates about whether women can "have it all" may speak to a disquiet that has been brewing for a long time as middle-class women have put their shoulders to the grindstone and begun to wonder whether it’s just too heavy to push. Media discussions about the stress of trying to “juggle” multiple roles and “balance” life and work are legion, but many of those discussions have centered on women. As a society we seem to view the resolution of so-called work-life conflict as women’s work:  it is women who are supposed to resolve the conflictby becoming more assertive at work (see Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) or less perfectionistic (see Debra Spar's Wonder Women:  Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection), or by reducing our work hours, or simplifying our lives or managing our stress by making more to-do lists and doing more yoga. Can it be that the more we “lean in” the more likely we are to fall over?

For those who imagine that “work-life conflict” is unlikely to be resolved merely through fixing women one person at a time, changing conditions in the workplace seems a more likely solution. But what actually happens when women and men try to resolve the work-life conflict problem by achieving flexibility in the workplace? A recent issue of the Journal of Social Issues devoted to answering this question yields the dispiriting conclusion that, regardless of race or class, both men and women pay a penalty when they try to do so. Researchers used the term "flexibility stigma" to refer to the bias against people who try to take leave for caregiving, even when they use existing workplace policies expressly designed for that purpose.

The penalty women pay for trying to achieve flexibility is to be thought uncommitted to their jobs or less competent than their counterparts. Researchers also found that when mothers asked their employers if they could cut back their work hours or announced that they were leaving the job altogether, the employers signified approval for these decisions, demonstrating an employer bias in favor of mothers who place care over paid work. For men, the penalties were different but equivalent. Men who sought flexibility were found to be more likely to be demoted, terminated, laid off, or given lesser responsibility; they were not viewed as “real men.” The flexibility stigma discouraged both women and men from taking family leave or creating flexible schedules. It is clear, then, that even “family-friendly” workplaces are not enough to create a better integration between home and work life.

What many of the discussions of “work-life conflict” have in common is their failure to take into account to what extent traditional gender norms limit our attempts to make changes both in the workplace culture and in the culture of family life to create greater flexibility in work-family arrangements and equalize the amount of family work that women and men do. In our culture being a good woman still essentially means being a good caretaker, and being a good man still means being a good breadwinner. How, then, can we change both home and workplace so that both employed mothers and fathers can garner an income and care for their families without being unduly burdened ? Nancy Fraser, social scientist and philosopher, has long taken the position that the only way we can really honor care work is to normalize it as the equal, legitimate concern--and preserve--of men and women. If we did this it would, in her words “end gender as we know it” by obliterating the long-held tradition of viewing care work as the “natural” province of women. In my view, “work-life conflict” is a misnomer. We can’t separate work from life; work is part of life and family is a part of life. For at least a moment, let’s consider what it would mean if, as a society, we all took equal responsibility for care work. Then maybe women wouldn’t have to “choose” between leaning in and falling over.

Dana Becker, Ph.D., professor at the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work, is the author of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea.

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